With Major League Soccer's 20th season just around the corner, we here at RSL Soapbox attempt to explore and explain the intricacies of the league. In this article we will discuss the draft process and the mechanisms guiding it. The goal is to allow fans to have a greater understanding of how the MLS systems works and act as a future reference if situations arise concerning Real Salt Lake.
Major League Soccer has always been a league that is different from its peers. Since its inception in 1996, the unique characteristics of the league have led to some interesting stories and misconceptions. Being a North American sports league, the league is ingrained with attributes that are not present throughout the world - in fact, they are quite unique to the geographical location. One of these very North American concepts is that of the draft.
In North American sports, a draft is a process used to allocate certain players to teams. Teams take turns selecting from a pool of eligible players, based on their previous year's performance. When a player is selected, the selecting team retains exclusive rights to sign that player to a contract. In other words, no other team in the league may sign the player before the selecting team has been given the chance. This process is made possible through a collective bargaining agreement which lends certain stipulations between the leagues and the labor unions representing the players.
Drafts are uncommon in soccer because most professional clubs obtain talented youth players through trades with other clubs or by developing them in their own academy system. In the North America, however, education is highly-stressed so many youth players decide to attend university. Therefore, in order to remain relevant, every sports franchise in a North American league, whether they are rebuilding or just retooling, must draft players. In Major League Soccer there are two annual draft types: the entry draft (called the SuperDraft) and the re-entry draft. But in order to accommodate other situations, the MLS has been known to use other draft types, such as contraction drafts and expansion drafts.
The MLS SuperDraft is categorized as an entry draft. The entry draft is the best-known type of draft and the most widely used. As with other North American sports leagues, the MLS uses entry drafts to allocate players that have recently become eligible to play in the league. An entry draft prevents expensive bidding wars for young talent and ensures parity by preventing a single team - or a few teams - from signing all the best talent. This prevents the league from becoming uncompetitive and allows teams that performed poorly the year before to improve.
The SuperDraft is an annual meeting, taking place in January each year, in which every franchise of Major League Soccer systematically selects the rights to available soccer players that have met eligibility requirements. Despite being an international league with clubs in both Canada and the United States, the MLS SuperDraft only includes players from the American college sports system or players that have been otherwise been signed by the league through other mechanisms.
The SuperDraft was first instituted in 2000, when the College Draft and the Supplemental Draft merged. This draft would then feature players that both graduated from college and had been active internationally before coming to the MLS. The SuperDraft is divided into four rounds in which each franchise has a selection determined by the club's position in last year's standings. These picks may be traded, however, so some clubs may have more selections while others have none. But clubs still receive comparable value for their draft picks.
The Claret-and-Cobalt have been one of the more quietly successful teams over the years of the MLS SuperDraft. As reports and league officials struggled to find information on RSL's draft picks, many around the league expected that the small-market club from Utah was simply pulling names out of a hat. The joke was on them time and time again as names likes Chris Schuler and Sebastian Velasquez excelled on the MLS pitch.
The MLS Re-Entry Draft is similar to an entry draft but involves players already in the league. Because of the single entity structure of the league, players that still have a contract with the league but had their options declined by their previous clubs become available to the other franchises in MLS.
There are specific rules governing this process but, essentially, this process allows veteran players to find a new club in the league. Because MLS does not have free agency, the re-entry draft is especially valuable to mid-career players.
The Re-Entry Draft was created by a clause in the previous collective bargaining agreement. Under the rules, players would hold some leverage in new contract negotiations with franchises in the league. While this draft has received some praise for increasing freedom and flexibility of player movement, this process falls short of true free agency which has been a major sticking point of the 2015 CBA negotiations.
While this process was a key concept for securing a deal in 2010, do not expect this draft alone to secure a 2015 CBA, with free agency being demanded by players.
Unlike the SuperDraft, Real Salt Lake have yet to find any great talent in the MLS Re-Entry Draft. The last draft, for example, saw RSL pass on all picks as the club has turned its focus towards developing its own talent.
One of the less common drafts, dispersal drafts occur when a franchise folds or a current team ceases operations. The subsequent process assigns players to a new team. Dispersal drafts are more commonly seen in emerging sports where initial support for a team failed to remain consistent and the team was unable to survive financially.
Chivas U.S.A. players were subjected to this process last year when the team folded. While many of the players remained undrafted, others found a new home, such as Donny Toia and Nigel Reo-Coker with the Montreal Impact and Marco Delgado with Toronto FC. During this draft, Real Salt Lake abstained from selecting any players.
As opposed to the dispersal draft, an expansion draft occurs when a sports league decides to create one or more new franchises and incorporate them into the existing structure of the league. An expansion draft is one of the way new teams are able to stock their teams.
The MLS, like other North American sports leagues, allows existing franchises to "protect" a certain number of players - in the MLS the number is eleven. The expansion team(s) are then allowed to selected players not on the protected lists in a manner similar to an entry draft but that still ensures parity.
By doing this, the clubs losing player essentially put all of the players they truly need on the protected list. This means that the expansion franchise is usually left to choice from reserve players or players that the clubs have decided they do not need. For this reason, expansion teams are often noncompetitive in their early years within the league. Since free agency is not a part of the MLS, many of the problems expansion sides face remain unalleviated.
In December, MLS experienced its most recent expansion draft. With Orlando City SC and New York City FC entering the fray this year, many clubs lost players to these expansion clubs. RSL was hit harder than most as ex-RSL head coach Jason Kreis selected veterans Chris Wingert and Ned Grabavoy for NYCFC.
Being a unique concept in the soccer world, drafts are often unclear and stigmatized but they remain a valued tool for clubs. MLS drafts are not about finding rare gems that will one day become the league's Most Valuable Player - although this does happen in cases such as Jason Kreis, Taylor Twellman, and Chris Wondolowski - in fact, it's more about understanding the intricacies of the league and generating market value for players in a salary cap situation. Intuitively, one would expect that a team would draft the best available player, but fans know better than this. A player is selected in a draft by a team that has unique needs and a specific understand of how the player will fit into their system.
Therefore, we have said it before and we will say it again: Drafts remain an undervalued system in the Major League Soccer.
As always, we'd like to know what you think. We'll do our best to answer any questions or comments. Do you think that there is a characteristic of the MLS draft system that we missed? Are there other draft mechanisms in the MLS that we overlooked? What do you think makes this system unique/weird and how could it be improved? How does the current structure bode for the future of RSL? Share your opinions in the comments section below.